And we’re back with more recommendations for beautiful, haunting horror films! This time, I’ll be looking at movies in which women’s sanity and mental health are key themes.
Female psychosis is nothing new in this genre. It’s as if women losing control of themselves, becoming unruly, is particularly horrifying to us. And why wouldn’t it be? Women are expected, socially, to take up less space, to be flexible and self-effacing, to fade into the background when no longer of use. A women shattering those expectations, doing the unexpected and the uncivilized, is a threat, and horror films have a long and complicated history exploring this space—usually from a very male point of view. (In fact, these lists are making me very aware of the all-male roster of directors, something I want to try rectifying going forward.)
Despite the objectification and exploitation of woman’s madness that is often very evident, there’s value to these films. There’s value in showing flawed women, women with problems and regrets and the ability to harm. Horror is one genre where a damsel has no place, where perfect mothers and wives don’t exist. (It’s also worth noting that many of these damaged girl films are also ripe for queer readings and, perhaps with the exception of Misery, the ones on this list absolutely have been analyzed in that way.)
Ingmar Bergman, 1966
The Story: Actress Elizabet Vogler is hospitalized, and has gone inexplicably mute. Nurse Alma is tasked with caring for her at a seaside cottage. The two women begin to relax around each other, Alma carrying on a one-sided conversation and Elizabet remaining silent. But the paradise cannot last: tensions rise, and the lines between Alma and Elizabet being to blur.
Why you should watch it: In my mind Ingmar Bergman looked back on his career and thought “there, that’ll keep the film studies nerds busy for a few decades.” There’s a lot going on here, and you’re guaranteed to be thinking the film over long after you’ve stopped watching. Whether it’s the subtle moments between Alma and Elizabeth, or the surrealist supercut of images that kickstart the film, it’s a beautiful storm of identity, gender, motherhood, performance, abortion, and lust.
Carnival of Souls
Herk Harvey, 1962
The Story: Mary and her two friends are driving in a car when they decide to drag race some men. The race ends tragically, with the women’s car driving off a bridge and killing everyone but Mary. She can’t remember how she survived, and shortly after leaves for a town in Utah, where she’s been hired as church organist. Mary becomes increasingly unsettled, first seeing a ghostly, ghoulish man, then becoming invisible and inaudible to the people around her, and feeling a strange pull from the desolate pavilion on the banks of the Great Salt Lake.
Why you should watch it: If the HORROR ORGAN isn’t doing it for you, there’s a big reveal at the end that I very much enjoyed. Carnival of Souls is very properly creepy, with an amazing soundtrack and beautiful, beautiful sets. The pavilion in particular is used to fantastic effect, as is the cold, lonely lake it borders.
Rob Reiner, 1990
The Story: Paul Sheldon is a novelist best known for a series of Regency romance novels centred on a character named Misery Chastain. Wishing to focus on more serious work, he kills off Misery and writes a new unrelated manuscript. Soon after, he gets caught and injured in a Colorado snowstorm, and wakes up in the rural home of Annie Wilkes, a superfan who has taken it on herself to nurse him back to health. She tells him that she’s contacted the authorities, and buys the newest Misery book. Though Annie was always unsettling, it’s when she realizes that Misery dies that she truly becomes menacing, telling Paul that no one knows where he is and locking him in his room.
Why you should watch it: Kathy Bates is a goddess, and no one will ever be able to convince me otherwise. There’s a reason she won both the Oscar and Golden Globe for best actress, and her performance—which pings wildly from bashful, naive country girl to abusive psychopath—is, along with a delightful late 80s aesthetic, what makes the film.
Roman Polanski, 1965
The Story: Belgian manicurist Carol is living in London with her older sister and seems disconnected and awkward from the outset. She is uninterested in her job, doesn’t want to interact with men, bites her nails constantly, and finds her sister Helen’s sexuality unsettling. But when Helen goes on vacation, leaving Carol alone in the apartment, the younger sister begins hallucinating, living in a dreamlike horror landscape that hints at past traumas.
Why you should watch it: Catherine Deneuve gives a powerhouse performance that even manages to outshine Polanski’s tremendously pervy gaze. This is an intense film about childhood sexual abuse, and it goes all out in using surreal suspense-building to show the extreme and lasting effects on Carol’s psyche. It’s gut-wrenching. (Also, I don’t want anyone financially supporting Roman Polanski. You have my absolute blessing to download this one illegally.)